On Wednesday, big sports and cable/streaming news broke: the National Hockey League (NHL) and ESPN reached an agreement for the sports network to be the main home for pro hockey in the United States. The deal’s good for the next seven years (starting with the 2021-2022 season this fall), and will see Disney (ESPN’s owner) pay the NHL $400 million annually. That’s up from the $1.9 billion for 10 years that the NHL’s previous home, NBC, paid in 2011.
The NHL’s also looking for a secondary partner to also air games; the main choices for that include Fox, CBS, and their old partner NBC. (Update: the secondary NHL partner is Turner Sports, via TNT. The full schedule of games airing on TNT is available here.)
- ABC/ESPN will air four Stanley Cup Finals, plus half of the playoffs.
- ABC or ESPN will air at least 25 regular season games. For the 2021-22 season, ESPN will have 18 exclusive games. ABC will air 10 regular season games, including the Thanksgiving Showdown (airing on Black Friday, between the Blues and the Blackhawks), plus the 2022 All-Star Game on February 5. The other ABC games will air on Saturday nights, starting in late February (after the Winter Olympics)… I assume calling it “Hockey Night in America” isn’t an option?
- 75 games will exclusively stream on ESPN+ and Hulu. Hulu also has access to ESPN+ content, for those wanting to use one app for both services.
- Coverage for the 2021-22 season kicks off with a doubleheader on October 12 (the Penguins/Lightning at 7:30 PM ET, followed by the Kraken/Golden Knights at 10 PM ET). The games will be on ESPN, and simulcast on ESPN+.
- The out-of-market streaming service NHL.TV will cease to exist, with its functions folded into ESPN+. Starting this fall, all 1,000+ locally broadcast games will be available to ESPN+ subscribers, save local team games (which’ll be blacked out).
- Cable’s NHL Center Ice out-of-market service will still exist. As far as I can tell, this also doesn’t affect the similar package offered in Canada by Rogers, NHL Live.
- There’s also international rights covering Latin America, the Caribbean, and parts of Europe.
What’s in it for both parties
While Disney’s been reeling from the pandemic, their streaming services are successful. Disney+ has just reached 100 million subscribers, making it one of the biggest streaming services in the US. Hulu and ESPN+ also aren’t doing badly (at 39 million and 12 million subscribers respectively).
A major sport like hockey calling ESPN and ESPN+ home might help shore up interest in subscribing to ESPN+, either by itself or as part of the Disney+ bundle. It also gives ESPN claim to all four major North American sports, alongside their baseball, football, and basketball coverage.
For the NHL
As mentioned above, the NHL will earn more money from this deal than their old NBC one. Also helping: ESPN has a higher profile than NBC (or the soon-to-shutter NBCSN), which should help promote the sport in the US.
The more robust streaming service options will also help, though ESPN+ already offers a selection of locally broadcast hockey games every night during the regular season.
Along with that, ESPN’s had some history of airing NHL games. It was the main cable home for hockey in the US from 1979 to 1982, 1985 to 1988, and 1992 to 2004. ESPN even announced plans to dust off their old NHL coverage theme song (currently used for “In the Crease,” a hockey analysis show airing on ESPN+):
Nice, if not as catchy as the original “Hockey Night in Canada” theme song (now owned by TSN, a Canadian sports network and Canada’s counterpart to ESPN).
I view the switch to ESPN as a good thing for the NHL. Of particular interest is that ESPN+ will become the main home for out-of-market locally broadcast games. The fact it’s a lot cheaper than the old NHL.TV package is a plus: ESPN+ costs $6 a month, or $60/year; as part of the Disney+ package, $14/month will also get Disney+ and Hulu.
I already subscribe to ESPN+, which handles the existing NHL games pretty well. The fact I’ll be able to now watch all locally-broadcast Chicago Blackhawks, Minnesota Wild, or New Jersey Devils games adds to what already was a pretty good deal.
On the downsides, nationally covered games (on ESPN-proper or NHL Network) will still need cable, or a streaming option like Sling TV or YouTube TV. I also fear that they’ll still insist on airing part of the Stanley Cup Finals only on ESPN, just as NBC split the finals between NBC and NBCSN.
The New York Times notes there’ll be fewer regular season games airing nationally on TV; this season, out of 100 games, 16 are on NBC, while 84 are on NBCSN. Under the new deal, ABC/ESPN also get 100 nationally broadcast games, but 25 of those will be on ABC/ESPN, while the other 75 are through ESPN+ and Hulu. This might be a good or bad thing depending on how one looks at it. However, given the shift to streaming that’ll likely continue over this decade, I don’t think it’ll be a negative for the NHL.
Overall, I’m optimistic for the new deal, though I’m wondering who the NHL will get as a secondary partner. Hopefully not Fox… besides Fox being, well, Fox, I also recall the last time they had the NHL rights, back in the 1990s. Anyone remember the glowing puck?